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About Me

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I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!

This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!

28 April, 2011

Brimstone Moth (Opisthograptis luteolata)

The Brimstone butterfly is on the wing this time of year but you may also flush out the Brimstone Moth whilst gardening or walking by hedgerows.

This is one of our common species and it has three broods a year down year in the south of England whereas 'up north' it tends to hove only one brood in mid-summer.

It has no real preference for food plant for its larvae and they can be found on many types of shrub and flowering fruit trees which is why they are frequently found in gardens

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

The field guides tell you what this plant looks like but they do not tell you what it tastes like. Given its name, it must be quite potent!
This is a plant I have always known as Jack-by -the-Hedge and it almost exclusively grows along hedgerows and woodland edges, mainly on chalk soils so it is not uncommon down here in Dorset.
It comes in to flower in April and can hang on in to July. In May it can line a hedgerow with these white clusters of small, four petalled flowers.
Although easily passed by without a second glance, this plant is a good place to look for early insects. It is an important food plant for several species, especially the Orange Tip butterfly which emerges in to its flight stage to coincide with Garlic Mustard coming in to flower.

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

A walk through woodland at this time of year will probably reveal Wood Sorrel. It is a small white flower that one casts an eye to, says "It's Wood Sorrel" and you walk on.

Closer inspection, however, reveals more detail and especially the violet veins in the petals. I believe insects, especially bees, can see ultra-violet light and these veins lead to the centre of the plant and so guide any visiting insect to the nectar source and so to the pollen on the stamens. If the bee has already visited a previous plant of the species then accumulated pollen may be acquired by the stigma (the tube in the centre) from where it finds its way down the tube to the ovaries where the seeds are.

I was also interested to see the yellow at the base of the petals. I assumed at first that this was pollen that had stained them but looking in the book it seems that the inside of the petals are naturally yellow even though on the outside they are pure white.

Wood Sorrel is not related to other plants bearing the name sorrel. It is a member of the Oxalis family and I have heard it called Wood Oxalis. Common in Oak and Beech woodland, especially in dryer areas. They flower in March and April and will soon be over for another year.

27 April, 2011

Crustose Lichen (Lecanora dispersa)

If you stop at one of the bridges over the lower reaches of the River Frome, as well as plants such as Wall Rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort you will, I am sure, notice the extensive areas of crusty white stuff on the tops of the walls.
I find it hard to believe that this dried up and cracked substance is actually a living thing - in fact it is two living things; an algae and a fungus living together as one lichen.
I accept that it is not much to look at nor particularly exciting to find but, that said, I do find it fascinating. It is very slow growing and you can only stand and wonder just how old it is.
There are several similar species but I am fairly certain that this is Lecanora dispersa and you will find it on walls, tomb stones and calcareous rock substraits right across the county. It is very common and is very resistant to pollution and so has no problems growing close to roads even there there are high levels of toxins there.
Why not take a magnifying glass and go out and have a look at these crusty old things!

26 April, 2011

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys)

When I was young we used to know this plant as 'Birds-eye'. It is now better known as 'Speedwell' I think, but my field guide lists fifteen species of Speedwell so how do you know which one this is?

Looking just at the flower alone is not going to get you to the answer! In general, Germander Speedwell is a darker blue than many of the family but this is not always the case.

About a half of the Speedwell's have a flower the shape of these, with three small lobed petals on top and a single longer one below.

There are three other factors you can take in to account however to help you decide. Firstly, and most importantly, the leaves. Germander grows in small 'bushes' and has many leaves with a slightly serrated edge. Secondly, it grows in many environments; woods, hedgerows and on grassland, whereas other species are more habitat selective and many are weeds of cultivation.

Finally, of course, the Germander Speedwell is by far the most common of the family as well as flowering from March to July so, if you see a Speedwell then decide first if it is not Germander before thinking about what it might be!

25 April, 2011

Common Quaker (Orthosa stabilis)

There are a limited number of moth species that fly in March and April, lack of food plants and cold nights being the obvious reasons why. As a result the moth trap at this time of year tends to yield the same species each night.
As well as the Hebrew Character, Common Quaker are frequently in the trap.
At first site these are small, plain, brown moths with not much to distinguish them but, as so often in nature, a close up look shows this to not really be the case.
The Common Quaker is not, I agree, a stunner, but it does have intricate markings which set it apart from other species.
This a widespread and common species that feeds mainly on Sallow which is in full bloom now. It lays its eggs on Oak, Sallow and other trees and the larvae hatch in May and then pupate which is how they spend the winter, hatching out in March and April.

24 April, 2011

Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis)

Walk through any of the meadows alongside our Dorset rivers about now and you will almost certainly see the Cuckooflower; so named as it flowers around the same time as the Cuckoo returns to our shores in spring.

Also known as Lady's Smock, this a common plant of damp places and can be found along ditches and damp woodland as well as water meadows.

The flowers of the Cuckooflower are a very pale mauve/pink.

This is a favourite food plant of the Orange Tip butterfly and if you watch closely for a while you will see Orange Tips laying eggs on the plants. After the butterfly has gone, take a look on the plant stem and you will see a small egg, appropriately orange in colour.

23 April, 2011

Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbrata)

If you don't like spiders look away now!

What an amazing little animal this is? The body of the female Raft Spider can be up to 20mm, over half an inch, which means those eight legs are over an inch long and the whole beast over 2 inches long from front to back tips.

The Raft Spider, as its name implies, is only found near water, inhabiting swampy areas that have larger clear pools amongst them. Although widespread they are much commoner in the south and are, because of their particular habitat requirements, quite local.

The marshy areas around Arne RSPB in Dorset is as good a place to see them as anywhere. Look for lilly pads on the many 'dragonfly' ponds, then look for the spider waiting on it with its front four legs touching the waters surface. When they detect an insect struggling in the water they run across the water and strike.

Seen in Spring and summer, to my mind they are worth a visit to Arne alone!

20 April, 2011

Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Is the Holly Blue not an adorable little butterfly? Totally exquisite when seen close up!

The Holly Blue is also a fascinating little creature. The insect over winters as a pupae, usually hidden in amongst Ivy. In April (there seem to have been quite a number this year) they emerge, mate and lay their eggs on Holly flowers. First broods will be gone by early June and then the eggs from the first brood (laid on Holly) emerge, mate and lay their eggs on Ivy. The larvae pupate and over winter in amongst the Ivy and so the cycle continues. Second broods are only briefly on the wing in late July/early August.

Most 'blues' are grassland species but the Holly Blue is, because of its affinity to the Holly and the Ivy, more at home in woodlands, shrubby areas and gardens. It is the most likely blue you will see in your garden in most areas.

The other feature of the Holly Blue is wonderful silver colour with black spots on the under wing. It is possible to detect the silvery colouring even when the butterfly is in flight.

19 April, 2011

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

This is a very common, and yet often overlooked, plant of the spring. It flowers from late March through to May.

Ground Ivy is so called because its leaves supposedly resemble those of ivy (but that is not how it appears to me!)

It is member of the labiate family which includes deadnettles, herbs such as Mint and Basil, and woundworts. This family have square stems and long tubular flowers which are popular with any insect with a long tongue such as butterflies or a long proboscis like the Bee-fly.

Ground Ivy does not grow very tall and you should take care not to confuse it with Bugle, a similar but taller plant.

Ground Ivy can be found almost anywhere where the soil is not over run with other taller dominant vegetation.

17 April, 2011

Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa)

Despite dramatic falls in the population levels of moths they are still very common insects. Most are nocturnal and most are masters of camouflage and so one does not see them often in the day time.

The striking pattern of this one, called the Angle Shades, means that it is very hard to see when it is at rest during daylight hours on fences and leaves. However, this newly hatched one in pristine condition obviously missed the point of its wonderful colouring and thought it would show everyone who stopped to look just how gorgeous it is!

Fortunately, it chose our bungalow to do this on and so my nature loving wife tenderly moved it to a more secure location.

The Angle Shades is one of our most common moths and can be found from April right through to October as it is multi-brooded. Common may be but hard to find once they learn the technique of disguise.

13 April, 2011

Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus)

Nature's dustmen! The scarab beetles form the order Scarabaeoidea and they specialise in dung.
OK, they have what is an unpleasant job through human eyes but it is, none the less, an important one in the natural cycle of things.
This is a male Minatour Beetle, identified by its amazing array of three thoracic spines (ie spines coming from the thorax rather than the head like a Stag Beetle).
They are found mainly in sandy soils where they bury rabbit droppings on which both adults and larvae feed. They tend to be on the move in the evenings and we found this one, upside down and struggling to right itself near the farm fields at Arne where the Sika Deer feed. As these beetles also specialise in sheep dung it occurs to us maybe deer droppings are suitable too?
Not much to look at perhaps but interesting. The male collects the dung (using those horns presumably) and the female, without horns, does the burying. I guess those horns would be a major impediment in getting below ground?

11 April, 2011

Oak Beauty (Biston strataria)

How do you tell a moth from a butterfly? Not a joke, a serious question! Answer? Moths have feathered antennae where as a butterfly has clubbed antennae.

A look at this photo will quickly tell you then that this is a moth with those lovely, long feathered antennae. In fact, that makes this a male moth. They use those antennae to pick up the scent of female pheromones up to 200 yards away.

The Oak Beauty is a resident species, single brooded, flying in March and April and it is widespread and not uncommon in woodlands and parkland in England, especially in the south.

Eggs are laid on a range of trees including Oak, Hazel and Alder. The larvae emerge in May and pupate in July and over winter in that state before being one of earliest species to emerge.

Common Daisy (Bellis perennis)

The humble Common Daisy, one of the first flowers we can name when, as youngsters, we are taught to make daisy chains! When a bit older we pull the petals off one by one saying "She loves me, she loves me not".

Love them or hate them if you have a lawn you almost certainly have the Common Daisy growing there. Everyone has daisies on their lawn apart from one of my neighbours whose lawn is like astro-turf.

Cutting the grass gets rid of them for an hour or two but it is not long before those familiar white and yellow flowers reappear. I like them and have no problem with them, my wife hates them and wants them cut off by the mower.

The Common Daisy flowers from March to October on short grazed (or mown) turf everywhere and they are so familiar we take them for granted but looked at close up they are attractive flowers.

08 April, 2011

Oil Beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus)

I am not sure what I marvel at most, the bewildering complexity of nature or the dedicated research scientists who unravel it for the rest of us to understand!

Seeing this creature climbing up the garage wall sent me running for the camera and the field guide. I had seen Oil Beetles before but normally on the Purbeck coastal cliffs; I did not expect one in our garden. What I discovered was, frankly, amazing!

It seems that in spring the female Oil Beetle lays an enormous amount of eggs in soil, several thousand per batch and several batches per individual.

The eggs soon hatch in to wriggling larvae with strong jaws and claws. They climb up on to the heads of Dandelions and await the arrival of their host insects.

When an insect comes along to feed on the Dandelion the larvae attaches itself but only a very few actually attach to the right host, a species of solitary bee! Those that make the wrong choice perish while the lucky ones cling on and are transported back to the bee's nest.

Once there, it eats ONE egg! After that it turns its attention to eating the bee's food.reserves, nectar and pollen. After several moults the larvae turns in to a grub, pupates and emerges as an adult in spring ready to mate and start the complex cycle again.

Now is that amazing or not?

Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica)

At this time of year there are not a lot of moths about but the most common by far is the Hebrew Character.

It is not hard to see why it bears that name; that distinctive mark on the wings.

The Hebrew Character is a resident species as opposed to migratory. It overwinters as a pupa and hatches into an adult and is flying in March and April and is particularly fond of Sallow blossom.

It is single brooded and the larvae hatch and are active on a wide variety of trees during May and June before pupating.

03 April, 2011

Marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris)

A bright bit of 'sunshine' to cheer a dark, damp and dreary early April morning, the first Marsh-marigolds in flower in our garden pond.

I usually call these King-cups or Marsh-cups but the book calls them Marsh-marigold so I will have to change my ways!

These are, of course, members of the buttercup family and are common anywhere it the ground is wet, You will see them on wet meadows, river banks, edges of ponds and lakes, even in damp woodland.

At the moment, there are masses of them on the meadows beside the Wareham by-pass, they are so striking you can see them clearly from the car as you pass.

01 April, 2011

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)

The Carrot family is a diverse one with many species, some very common others, as you might expect, very rare. One of the first of the family to flower each year is Alexanders which is just coming in to flower now.
The 'umbels' (ie Carrot family) are named as such because of their 'umbrella' shaped flower heads and they can be difficult to tell apart but Alexanders is easy because it has a pale green flower head where as most of the family are white, cream or yellow.
Alexanders is a fairly local plant confined to coastal regions in Britain and I had not seen it until we moved here to Dorset where it is plentiful near the coast. It quite often grows in hedgerows and on banks inland but hardly more than five miles from the sea.